President-elect Barack Obama is winning kudos for his bipartisan approach to stimulating the moribund economy. But his initiatives won't be truly effective unless the administration moves quickly to pass the Employee Free Choice Act that raises living standards by allowing workers to organize without being harassed or fired. Equally important, his new Labor Secretary, Hilda Solis, should move quickly to stop the wage theft of $19 billion a year from workers stiffed by companies that won't pay overtime or minimum wage, and start enforcing unenforced workplace safety laws that let 6,000 workers get killed each year.
If practically everyone's broke, thousands are killed on the job or can be fired at will, who'll be left to do the spending needed to stimulate the economy?
As I point out in a new article in In These Times, drawing on the work of such policy experts as David Madland of the Center for American Progress, fixing the broken Labor Department needs to be a top priority both to protect workers and boost the sagging economy. And Obama and Solis could start doing all that even before an Employee Free Choice Act is passed. Some excerpts:
While labor's top legislative priority is the long-overdue Employee Free Choice Act to give workers a level playing field to organize, there are several key steps Obama's new Secretary of Labor, Rep. Hilda Solis, can take right away to boost enforcement of current laws at a broken Labor Department and such slothful agencies as OSHA.
How bad was OSHA under Bush? The Washington Post reported last week a nearly 90 percent drop-off in major oversight actions because "political appointees ordered the withdrawal of dozens of workplace health regulations, slow-rolled others, and altered the reach of its warnings and rules in response to industry pressure."
In fact, as the Post reported, OSHA's recent chief, Edwin Foulke, was a deregulation advocate who literally fell asleep on the job (at least "Brownie" at FEMA stayed awake long enough to primp himself for interviews)...
Foulke quickly acquired a reputation inside the Labor Department as a man who literally fell asleep on the job: Eyewitnesses said they saw him suddenly doze off at staff meetings, during teleconferences, in one-on-one briefings, at retreats involving senior deputies, on the dais at a conference in Europe, at an award ceremony for a corporation and during an interview with a candidate for deputy regional administrator.
It won't be easy fixing a Bush-led bureaucracy that couldn't care less if workers lived or died (or even get paid). But Madland and co-author Kara Walker outline five critical steps to toughen enforcement and accountability:
· Opportunity 1: Use penalties to create a culture of accountability.
· Opportunity 2: Increase enforcement staff and use partnerships to assist underfunded enforcement divisions.
· Opportunity 3: Target high-violation sectors with strategic initiatives.
· Opportunity 4: Use thorough record keeping to drive enforcement priorities, enhance public accountability, and improve performance evaluation.
· Opportunity 5: Strengthen immigrant protections to improve job quality for all workers.
Yet the departing Labor Secretary, Elaine Chao is engaging in Bush-like spinning about her own "legacy": "Our workers today [are] safer and healthier than they were eight years ago. The facts speak for themselves."
In truth, as the New York Times observed in praising Solis's nomination:
To enforce labor standards, the Labor Department will need more staff and more money, both of which have been cut deeply by President Bush. Only the president can give the new labor secretary the clout she will need to do well at a job that has been done so badly for so long, at such great cost to the quality of Americans' lives.
If Obama does that, it will be a change that can't come too soon after eight years of the Bush Administration's War on Workers.